This interview with Executive Director Gina Genovese originally appeared on Keystone Politics.
Can you give us a quick description of what Courage to Connect NJ does?
Courage to Connect NJ is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that is a resource for elected officials and citizens to learn about municipal consolidation, the 2007 law, and what is necessary to form a consolidation study commission, and to look at consolidation in their own towns.
What have you been working on recently?
Well, we had a lot of elected officials reach out to us around the state, and in some places we’d make some headway, and eventually one town might stop it. We’ve met with citizen groups around the state and had some success – we had the first successful citizen petition to form a consolidation study commission in Scotch Plains and Fanwood. We’re working with citizens in Roxbury and Mt. Arlington. Now since the Princeton Township and Princeton Borough consolidation, we’ve had many more elected officials come forward, and we’re working with them, and I think that you’ll see a lot of progress, as a result of the Princeton success.
What types of citizen groups tend to be interested in this issue?
Well it’s interesting, some citizens will be upset about either taxes, or that they’re losing services and then they start talking, and a group eventually forms, sometimes they ask Courage to Connect NJ to go in and conduct a presentation and we give them an overview of what’s happening in the state, we give them an overview of the options towns have now facing budgets and economic restrictions, and show them they have the power to do something about it. And out of that usually comes the nucleus of 8 or 10 residents that want to work together to make a difference.
The municipal consolidation cause had a pretty significant victory with the merger of Princeton Township and Princeton Borough. What has the process been like for them since they voted?
It’s interesting because for the first few years, all I heard around the state of New Jersey is that consolidation is never going to happen, and obviously on November 8, 2011 with the successful vote, that was a major milestone in the state of New Jersey and in the history of consolidation. But what they did in 2012 was really the historic experience that we need to learn from. And that experience is the implementation of consolidation. You have joint governing body meetings, and how two governing bodies work very hard and diligently in one year to ensure that there’s going to be one town at the end of that, and it’s going to be successful.
What lessons did your organization learn from that campaign and how have you applied those lessons to your recent work?
That’s one of the reasons why we’re having the seminar on June 5 at Princeton University. We’re going to host a seminar where you’re going to hear from the Mayor, you’re going to hear from the Councilwoman, the administrator, and the firm that actually did the report, and that’s when it becomes real. That’s when people can learn from the experience and hear it from the people that did it. And that’s what we have to do in New Jersey is build on that success. It definitely has changed the consciousness around consolidation in New Jersey because of their efforts to work hard and make it a success.
What does the elections process look like? How did they decide what to do about political representation?
One of the processes of the study commission is to figure out what form of government you want, whether you’re able to do wards or at-large, how large you want your governing body to be. And so the Princetons actually got the borough form of government which is a Mayor and Council and everyone’s at-large. And they had their election this past November to elect the new governing body. And now they have staggered elections so some of them are coming up in a year, some are coming up in two years, and then all the rest will be up in 3 years. They have a whole process on how to do that so it’s a pretty smooth transition.
Did incumbents have to run against each other from the two towns?
Yes, I think a couple of them did. A Councilwoman challenged the Mayor, a challenge from the other party, but basically I think it was a smooth transition. What was funny was at the first reorg meeting they all had to pick out of a hat how long they were going to be elected for, whether it would be one, two or three years. It’s the exact process you would use if you were changing from a township to a borough form of government.
The political messaging on this issue can be tricky – what do you think consolidation advocates should avoid doing? Is there anything that advocates do that you think is unhelpful?
Well you know even though I’m an advocate, I do not believe in forced consolidation or making people do it. I think that that’s the wrong approach. When governments talk about a carrot and a stick and trying to force people to do this, I think that that’s absolutely the wrong approach. I think we’re coming to a time when we have to have some innovation in our local governing bodies and how we’re going to deliver services. But I think it’s important for people to educate others that are interested in talking about the subject, and make sure they come along in this process because it might take a while. Just ask questions and talk about let’s all work together to make a better system, both in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
What can we look forward to at the Princeton event on June 5?
We’re really trying to grow and build on our successes in New Jersey so when you have a win like we had in Princeton, I think it’s important that other people around the state and the region to come hear from the people that did it and learn the lessons they’ve learned, and share the different ideas about how you could potentially do it better. And also share that maybe some of the fears around consolidation were maybe not as valid as somebody had thought previous to the success of the Princetons. I think this can change the way many look at consolidation.